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All Dive, No Jive

Das Boot
Karlheinz Vogelmann

It Must Be the Bunks: The crew of U-96 braces for another wave of underwater combat in the restored "Das Boot."

Enhanced 'Das Boot' runs deep, runs very long

By Richard von Busack

THE OPENING SHOT of Das Boot--The Director's Cut demonstrates why the rereleased 1981 film should be seen in a theater and not on video. From an expanse of dank emerald-green water a craft materializes, as if out of history: U-96, a WWII German submarine, a blunt, dark horror whose bulk glides forward and fills the screen. If you don't already have a fear and loathing of submarines, you will by the time the movie is over.

The U-96's three-month cruise takes 3 1/2 hours of screen time in the expanded version. The skipper (Jürgen Prochnow) takes the sub into the North Atlantic in 1941, hiding from destroyers, attacking a convoy and ultimately being knocked helpless to the bottom of the ocean.

Fifteen years (the film was released in 1982 in the U.S.) can't erase the memory of certain scenes. The improved soundtrack underscores the best effects: The crew of the U-96 sits in silence, listening as the sonar gropes for them in the dark; the wait is ended by a tremendous explosion of depth charges that almost rips the sub open. When the U-boat descends to hide from the bombardment, the hull creaks horribly. Finally, the pressure forces a bolt or two to shoot out into the crowded sub, jolting you with a bang like a Colt .45.

Director Wolfgang Petersen loads Das Boot with visual details. Photographer Jöst Vacano's improvised Steadicam gives the sense of a swarm caught inside a narrow tube. The surfaces of the cramped, swaying sub get danker and greasier as the movie progresses (explaining why WWII slang for submarines was "pig boats").

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Director Wolfgang Petersen talks about the making
and remaking of his submarine epic.

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Watching the long version will make you feel that you deserve a combat ribbon. Das Boot doesn't move very fast, and the extra hour includes plenty of close-ups of needles on dials going into the red zone. Despite Petersen's thoroughness, the characterizations are sketchy. The director tends to lay it on a little thick at times, particularly when the U-96's officers express their contempt for some spotless surface-navy types.

Das Boot is an officer's view of the submarine service. The common sailors are seen mostly lolling in their bunks--which is explicable, since one shift out of three is always sleeping at any given time. But we have no idea what the men do when they're awake; they might as well be ballast.

Still, Das Boot earns its all-encompassing title. This boat could have been any kind of hell-craft, from a schooner to a spaceship: a corral of tedium and sleeplessness and filth and claustrophobia on one side of the bulkhead, with death pounding on the other side.


Das Boot (1981; R; 210 min.), directed and written by Wolfgang Petersen, photographed by Jöst Vacano and starring Jürgen Prochnow.

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From the April 3-9, 1997 issue of Metro

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